Novice skeptic considers race, technology, media

No matter how many Ferguson vines and live streams I watch, I haven’t experienced it. I’m not Mike Brown, I haven’t been tear gassed and armored vehicles aren’t driving my block.

Ferguson resonates with me, and modern technology lets me watch conflicts live from my apartment like never before. However, skepticism makes me question how I can convey and understand the experiences of others as a journalist and a news consumer.

I’ve been on philosophy binge. David Hume’s empiricism spoke to my work at The Texas Tribune, where I combed datasets for newsworthy information. I was already questioning the truthiness of my data, and Hume’s thoughts about knowledge coming from experience sync with the Bayesian statistical methods that were developed around the same time as Hume’s writings.

Recent readings also affirmed my experiences interviewing families with terminal illnesses for Inheritance of Hope. Each month for the past three years, I have written about parents who were told they have terminal diseases, but I still feel like my reports are incomplete. I can’t comprehend illness in the ways those families can.

I connected with Elaine Scarry’s claim that people are better at empathy than sharing actual physical feelings like pain. Physical feelings are tied to specific experiences, and Scarry channels Hume, who distinguishes “impressions” from “ideas” and claims that all ideas and facts are products of experiences.

Likewise, racial tension is rooted in past experiences. If I don’t have those experiences, how can I convey them as a journalist?

When Hume writes, “a man in a fit of anger is actuated in a very different manner from one who only thinks of that emotion,” I think of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

I also recall the powerful response Angela Davis gave to a reporter who asked her about violence: “The person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through.” (4:52)

They’re telling me I need experience to understand.

Media gives me windows into other experiences. Black twitter creates discussions like #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, and activists can broadcast sights and sounds nearly instantly. Video and the definitive account it provides, which we learned from Rodney King, inspired petitions to require cameras for police officers after Mike Brown. I love the idea that technology can inform and empower.

Although media reflects these emotions and events as images and sound bites, I can’t take the place of a protester. I can’t actually have the experience with media, and that makes a difference. The history of racial segregation created what President Obama recently called a “gulf of mistrust,” and affects how we perceive events. The divides continue even in our connected lives with social media algorithms that create “filter bubbles” and distort information streams.

At least Antonio French, the alderman who has been at the Ferguson unrest nightly, can post his personal account to his Twitter stream. Without his tweets and videos, I would not have those glimpses from his perspective, even if they are brief glimpses.

However, I wonder what social media is unable to tell me about the black experience in St. Louis.

Note: My dive into skepticism started with a video of young adult writer John Green playing XBox.